Greater Manchester annual general fiasco

The annual general meeting of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance took place, five months late, on September 11. It marked a further stage in the degeneration of this originally promising organisation. Reporting upon last year’s AGM (Weekly Worker May 21 1998), I observed that, “Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance has effectively now reverted to the proprietorial control” of a small clique. This has now been formalised.

At the 1998 AGM, the constitution of the organisation was amended in a democratic coup by GMSA convenor John Nicholson and his associates, which saw the removal of the right of all affiliated organisations to a seat on the alliance’s steering committee. Under the new rules, affiliates and individual members could make nominations, from which the AGM would elect comrades for the 10 steering committee seats. The new constitution was immediately applied, and the election resulted in all affiliates - except the CPGB, and the CPGB-led Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Labour Party - retaining their seats. My report commented upon the predictable support Nicholson had received from the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Outlook delegates, and upon the failure of the delegates of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the International Socialist League to back the CPGB delegates’ condemnation of the gross abuses of working class democratic norms which had characterised that meeting.

“First they came for the communists …”, the famous saying goes. During its five months’ delay over the calling of the 1999 AGM, Nicholson’s clique again arranged that proceedings should be dominated by their proposals for yet another new constitution. This time they moved that the 10 steering committee seats held by the affiliated organisations should be deleted and that, henceforth, “the implementation of policy and activities between conferences, the organising of annual and any other conferences, and the management of the organisation of the GMSA will be the responsibility of the elected officers”. A new clause proposed a tightening up of the criteria for eligibility for membership of the GMSA. This would only be available to “individuals, groups and organisations who agree with [the founding statement of the network of Socialist Alliances in England]” (my emphasis). Even in cases where such agreement was avowed, applications for membership were to be subject to the approval, or otherwise, of the officers, with the annual conference being empowered to vary the officers’ decisions.

As comrade Phil Watson explained (Weekly Worker September 2), the existing steering committee was now deemed ‘unreliable’ by Nicholson and co. He had alienated the AWL and the ISL in Manchester with his unprincipled collaboration with the Socialist Workers Party in the Campaign Against War in the Balkans, during which he had publicly refused to give voice to GMSA resolutions supporting the right of the Kosovar people to self-determination. He had also experienced 17 months of public defiance by the CPGB of its exclusion from the steering committee, for which he had retaliated by removing the CPGB and individual CPGB supporters from ‘his’ mailing list, even though the organisation and the individuals all remained fully paid up GMSA members. The AWL and ISL had displayed growing embarrassment at the exclusion of the CPGB, a matter which had surfaced more than once in discussions in the electoral bloc for the 1999 European elections, the North West Socialist Alliance. It had become clear that those two organisations at least would be unlikely to connive at the extension of the exclusion for another year.

The CPGB was more than happy then to witness, and to support, the action of the AWL in bringing forward amendments for debate at the 1999 GMSA AGM which would inter alia restore the automatic right of affiliates to a steering committee seat. The AGM was much in the mould of its predecessor. A similar number, 20, were in attendance - representatives of the CPGB, SPEW, ISL, AWL, SO, Socialist Movement, plus Nicholson’s ‘independent’ friends. Recent SPEW leaver Margaret Manning took the chair. After a rather flat and uninspiring ‘discussion’ on “building campaigns against Nato”, during which Nicholson sought to excuse his actions in the Campaign Against War in the Balkans on the grounds of the 80%-20% principle of the Socialist Alliances in seeking out agreement, the meeting moved onto the constitutional proposals.

Initially, comrade Manning indicated that she wanted to hear only the proposer and one speaker against, on each amendment being moved to the Nicholson document. Whilst this move was successful, against CPGB objections, it was nevertheless set aside for the particular debate on the steering committee, after Nicholson stalwart Chris Jones of SO had made a plea for more discussion. Jones added that he had ‘agonised’ over this particular proposal, even to the extent of not having made up his mind on his way to the meeting that morning. However, he had now been convinced and would support the leadership.

The vote on the AWL amendment was tied, 10 each way. Manning ruled that it fell. Then something interesting happened. From the floor, SPEW’s Noel Pine, a former GMSA chair, objected that surely Nicholson’s proposed change to existing practice also fell as a result of this tied vote. Manning ruled that this was not so: the steering committee’s action in moving, as an indivisible whole, a replacement constitution had not been challenged at the outset of the debate. It was not possible to accept or reject the constituent parts of the Nicholson document other than by means of a successful amendment. Comrades would have the opportunity to accept or reject the substantive once all of the AWL and other amendments had been dealt with.

For the CPGB John Pearson and Steve Riley then protested that a comrade from the Southport Independent Socialists, whom they had assumed to be an observer, had voted against the AWL amendment. The existing GMSA rules, not yet altered, stated that GMSA membership was open to those residing in Greater Manchester and neighbouring areas. Southport is 40 miles away from Manchester, on the northern seaboard fringe of Merseyside. Manning was quick to brush aside the objection. The geographical criterion was vague, she said, and therefore she preferred to rely upon whether a comrade identified themselves with Greater Manchester, which this particular comrade unsurprisingly did.

Other AWL amendments were successful. Only “broad” agreement with the statement of the network of English Socialist Alliances is to be demanded of members and affiliates, and all officer’s decisions, including on membership applications, are subject to ratification by full membership meetings, which should now take place bi-monthly. The final act came when the substantive new constitution was put to the vote. John Pearson called for its rejection. But the AWL and ISL were satisfied with the results of their endeavours. They voted for the new constitution and abstained in the contest for convenor, in which Nicholson beat John Pearson by eleven votes to four.

Elected to the officer positions were Nicholson, and his closest associates, O’Neill, Jones, Manning and Turner. Only Jones, of Socialist Outlook, has an acknowledged political affiliation. Even the presence of SPEW on the leadership of this, one of the first Socialist Alliances, has now gone. So the GMSA now resembles, more closely than before, a new sectlet rather than an alliance. It is effectively an organisation of the ‘great and the good’. The requirement for bi-monthly full membership meetings is no innovation, actually being the status quo position. The meetings were rarely convened before by Nicholson and we await with interest to see whether they will be in future.

Conferences are to be organised, on China and Ireland, within the next three months by the newly empowered officers. These will no doubt be tightly controlled. There is also no doubt that there will be an effective communist intervention in them and in all other forums where the Nicholson clique appear.

John Pearson